New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music Comes to New Jersey

Aired: February 27, 2011
From bluegrass to blues, country to klezmer, music tells the story of America. A nation of immigrants with rich musical traditions, the U.S. has developed an amazing array of musical styles, which are the subject of the Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit New Harmonies: Celebrating American Roots Music, touring New Jersey starting in March 2011. This interactive exhibit uses photographs, recordings, instruments, lyrics, and artist profiles to explore the distinct cultural identities of gospel, country, blues and other forms of roots music as they record the history of the American people and set the foundation for many musical genres appreciated world wide today. In this episode, Rita Moonsammy, folklorist, and Kathy DeAngelo, music director for the New Jersey Folk Festival, explore the significance of music as a marker of ethnic identity, cultural cohesion and New Jersey history. Along the way, DeAngelo plays roots music on the Irish harp and fiddle.

DeAngelo and Moonsammy explore the sociological and political aspects of roots music, commenting on the genre’s unique ability to act as a vehicle and driving force for social change. Discussing roots music as a “soundtrack” for the Civil Rights movement, these scholars discuss how it can be a unifying force, historically bringing individuals together regardless of race or nationality.

How does a Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibit impact a community? As Moonsammy explains hosting New Harmonies prompts local communities to discover their own musical history and heritage, helping visitors connect the present with the past. DeAngelo notes how the exhibit brings an often neglected and truly American art-form alive through both historical contextualization and live performance.

From its earliest beginnings as traditional music brought to America by Irish and Scottish immigrants, roots music has always been at the core of American music. However, the term “roots music” was coined to describe the music that influenced rock and roll. In this clip, DeAngelo gives listeners a sample of roots music, demonstrating her prowess with the Irish harp with a performance of the traditional Irish song Lord Galway’s Lamentation.

How has the music of immigrant populations been affected by, and in turn affected, the American musical landscape? DeAngelo demonstrates these differences by performing the same song twice on the fiddle, once in the traditional Irish style and again in the more improvisational American style. This change over time, DeAngelo argues, reflects the specific American context and frontier spirit.


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